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Mysterious 'Ginger' may be a scooter

The mysterious, purportedly world-changing device that has caught the attention of the technology industry may be something as simple as a scooter.

Man on skateboard"Ginger," the mysterious, purportedly world-changing device that has caught the attention of the technology industry, may be something as simple as a scooter.

A patent application filed with the World Intellectual Property Organization's International Bureau on Dec. 14, 2000, lists Manchester, N.H.-based DEKA Research and Development as the applicant. Inventor Dean Kamen has been creating products for DEKA for nearly 20 years. The application also lists Kamen as the inventor of the unnamed product.

But the patent does not refer to the device by either of the names that have been used in recent reports about Kamen's unspecified invention--"IT" and "Ginger."

Kamen did not immediately return phone calls for this story. But in a statement posted on Deka's Web site, he said, "We have a promising project, but nothing of the earth-shattering nature that people are conjuring up."

Hype regarding Kamen's device began to build after first reported on it based on a book proposal from Steve Kemper with Harvard Business Press.

The device listed on the application, as listed on the patent information Web site, fits some of what is known about the device. In the book proposal, Kamen says the device will have an effect on some billion-dollar old-line companies, which could be automotive companies.

The application includes drawings of various devices, including a unit similar to the electric scooters now popular with urban workers, a type of one-wheeled skateboard, and several other single-wheeled, foot-mounted oddities.

Kemper mentions the invention may require work by "city planners, regulators, legislators, large commercial companies, and university presidents about how cities, companies and campuses can be retrofitted for Ginger." New roads, paths, and traffic regulations may be necessary if Ginger were to take off with anywhere near the force some tech luminaries are predicting.

The abstract of the patent, titled "Personal Mobility Vehicles and Methods," describes "a class of transportation vehicles for carrying an individual over a surface that may be irregular." The patent goes on to describe various "embodiments" with motorized drives that function only when the machine is in an operating position, which is when a rider stands on the machine in an upright position.

Ginger has been the talk of the industry because of some of the people who have stepped forward to sing its praises. Apple CEO Steve Jobs supposedly predicted that cities will be built around the machines. CEO Jeff Bezos and venture capitalist John Doerr apparently are mesmerized with the device and have invested millions.

Amid the speculation, Kamen and the company he invents for, DEKA, have been tight-lipped concerning details. In a release, Kamen teased the public with a few particulars, including a 10-minute assembly time, a price tag of less than $2,000, and a debut date of 2002.

But in the statement released late Friday, Kamen backed away from the hype, saying the "leaked (book) proposal quoted several prominent technology leaders out of context, without their doubts, risks and maybes included. This, together with spirited speculation about the unknown, has lead to expectations that are beyond whimsical."

Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based think tank, reviewed the same patent application and agreed that all the signs seem to indicate that Ginger is a scooter-like machine.

"In Kamen's meetings with Bezos and Jobs he supposedly pulled the machine out of a bag, and he's said that Ginger could be a transportation device," Saffo said.

Saffo added that the components in Ginger are already available in Kamen's most recent invention, iBod, an off-road wheelchair.

"I can't help but feel that we are victims here," Saffo added. "I have a feeling that someone is out there having a big laugh over this. I just don't know who it is."

Kamen and DEKA have said they have kept mum about Ginger out of concern that corporations in industries that may be threatened by Ginger could "use their massive resources to erect obstacles against us or, worse, simply appropriate the technology by assigning hundreds of engineers to catch up to us and thousands of employees to produce it," Kamen said in the book proposal.